Political Candidates In Mountain West Reflect New Diversity

VIKKI BUCKLEY, the daughter of a bus driver, started out as a clerk in the Colorado secretary of state's office 20 years ago. Today she is seeking the office herself. She also is the first black woman nominated by a major party for a statewide office in Colorado.

Though she faces a formidable opponent in November, her ascension underscores a year of growing diversity and new faces in the politics of the Rocky Mountain West.

Across the region, newcomers, women, and minorities are seeking top jobs in a season that promises to usher in some political change. And the growing diversity in the politics of the region mirrors, to a certain extent, what is going on nationwide as women, blacks, and others move up through the system and increasingly run for top offices. Some of the more interesting races:

* Larry EchoHawk, a Pawnee, is vying to become the nation's first Native American governor in Idaho. Democratic nominee EchoHawk currently is the state's attorney general. He is expected to face a close contest with GOP standardbearer Phil Batt, former head of the Idaho Republican Party.

* Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan is trying to become the state's first woman governor since the 1920s. The Democratic contender is waiting to see whom she will face among a trio of Republicans. Though Wyoming is one of the nation's most Republican states, Democrats have held the governorship for 20 years.

* In addition to Ms. Buckley, Colorado Republicans have put another African-American on the ticket - Ike Kelley for lieutenant governor. He is one of two Republicans nominated for the job. The winner of their party contest will face Democrat Gail Sinton Schoettler, the state treasurer.

In New Mexico, first-time office seeker Gary Johnson (R) is expected to provide a stiff challenge to incumbent Gov. Bruce King (D). An Albuquerque contractor, Mr. Johnson spent more than $500,000, most of it his own, to win the GOP nomination over several seasoned politicians. He stresses bringing business principles to government. His candidacy is similar to that of Bruce Benson, a wealthy Colorado oil man who is a front-runner among the GOP candidates for governor. He has reached deep into his own pockets to underwrite his bid.

``Johnson is a fresh face, and the Republicans seem somewhat pleased by that,'' says David Soherr-Hadwiger, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. ``The Democratic Party is currently split.''

Analysts note that voters in the mountain West also tend to be more independent-minded and choose candidates based on who they are rather than on race, gender, or party. Several states - including Colorado, Idaho, and Utah - have undergone rapid growth in recent years, which has changed the makeup of the electorate.

``There has been tremendous in-migration, primarily in urban areas,'' says Greg Cawley, a political scientist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. ``People who are moving into the West tend to be more liberal, or at least more sensitive to cultural diversity.''

Several of the mountain states have long been less homogeneous in their politics than some people think. Take Wyoming - the ``equality state,'' which granted women the right to vote while it was still a territory. Wyoming's legislature is made up of 24 percent women - above the national average of 20 percent - according to figures compiled by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

Women represent a similarly high percentage of the legislatures of Colorado (34 percent), Idaho (31), and Nevada (27). Montana and New Mexico are about on par with the national average.

``Women have been a significant part of the legislature and [have held] statewide offices in Wyoming for years,'' says Janet Clark, an editor of the Women and Politics Journal, political science professor at West Georgia College, and who used to teach in Wyoming.

Minorities, who generally represent a small part of the region's population, have shown more mixed results. Latinos, for instance, hold 2.5 percent of the elected offices in Colorado, according to the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials.

That is a substantial increase over 10 years ago, but still well below their representation in the population - 13 percent. In New Mexico, where 38 percent of the population is Hispanic, Latinos hold 31 percent of the elected offices, the highest percentage in the nation.

Many native Americans have focused on their own tribal governments rather than running for outside offices. Still, if Mr. EchoHawk were to win, analysts believe it would spur other Native Americans to enter politics.

He is opposed by some tribal members because of stands he has taken as attorney for the state against gambling on Indian lands. ``People outside the state focus on his heritage a lot more than people here do,'' says Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University.

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